by Aaron London
The sonic boom from the landing of a space shuttle at Kennedy Space Center is a thing of the past, but the growing commercial space boom at the Cape is reverberating throughout Volusia County.
Earlier this year, the Volusia County Council amended the future land use map to include a new commercial space industry opportunity overlay zone with an eye toward preparing the county to attract more aerospace companies and take Volusia to the next frontier.
“The overlay zone is property that the county has jurisdiction over,” said Rick Karl, Volusia County director of aviation and economic resources.
The overlay zone encompasses nearly 12,000 acres of land, essentially covering the southern portion of the county acting as a gateway to the “space triangle” of commercial and government space operations centered on Cape Canaveral. The overlay includes some 435 acres of undeveloped land on the south end of the Daytona Beach International Airport property.
Karl said the push to attract aviation and aerospace companies is not new, but the creation of the overlay sets the stage for boosting the county’s efforts to be an active player in the industries.
“The county has land-use jurisdiction and that is why the overlay zone works for that,” he said.
According to the background information provided to the County Council on the overlay zone, the land-use change puts Volusia in a position to bring those high-tech industries to the area “and has the potential to become the preferred site for suppliers and service organizations that will support the rapidly developing commercial space launch industry.”
A report commissioned by the county and conducted by consultant Bryce Space & Technology illustrated the rapid growth in the aviation and aerospace sectors, a nearly $350 billion global industry.
In addition to amending the county’s future land use map and identifying potential sites for development, county staff also identified targeted industries and established a process to reduce the time necessary to issue development permits in the overlay zone.
Karl said even before the overlay was created the county has seen interest from the commercial space industry.
“We worked on two Blue Origin programs,” he said, referring to the aerospace company founded by Amazon president and CEO Jeff Bezos.
Karl said one of the projects ended up going to a site just outside the gates of Kennedy Space Center and the other went to Huntsville, Alabama.
County officials said the area’s growing role in the commercial space industry is a result of the end of the shuttle program in 2011.
When the federal government stepped back from launch activity at Cape Canaveral, private companies took up the slack energizing the commercial space industry. The growth of the sector is reflected in the rising number of orbital launches from Kennedy Space Center, which totaled 114 in 2018, the most in 28 years.
According to the Bryce report, since 2000 more than 250 venture capital firms have invested nearly $14 billion in start-up space companies with more than 20 percent of that investment going to companies with operations at Kennedy Space Center including SpaceX and Blue Origin.
Karl said the county’s efforts to increase the aerospace industry footprint in Volusia comes as the industry is on the upswing, despite the economic issues created by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s very active surprisingly enough,” he said. “The companies that are active and pressing on are doing well.”
That includes the Daytona Beach International Airport, which just recently added new flights from carrier American Airlines. Another aviation and aerospace sector poised to grow is the commercial satellite field.
“The satellite business is not going anywhere,” Karl said. “They are going to continue to put satellites in orbit like crazy.”
Karl said the commercial space industry goes well beyond the big rocket launches everybody sees from the Cape, and includes manufacturing of components for launch vehicles and satellites, maintenance and other emerging technologies.
“The diverse and developing technologies related to commercial aerospace is what we’re focusing on,” he said. “It’s just mind-boggling the different things that go into commercial space components.”
Clay Ervin, Volusia County director of growth and resource management, said streamlining the approval process for development of commercial aerospace companies is an important part of the overlay idea.
“We want to make sure we capitalize on our proximity to Cape Canaveral,” he said. “We looked at what barriers there are.”
Ervin said in many instances the timeframe from project proposal to moving dirt can be up to 120 days and being able to move quickly “can be crucial to a developer.”
Reducing that timeframe “was our primary goal,” he said.
Ervin said the development of a competitive aerospace industry program has been a team effort among different county offices, including the office of Helga van Eckert, county economic development director.
“Aviation is a booming industry from a manufacturing and distribution standpoint and Volusia County is ideally situated from research with Embry-Riddle and other universities as well as with the infrastructure that is in place for distribution,” she said.
Van Eckert said there are already several aviation and aerospace companies operating in Volusia County, including parts suppliers and manufacturers. And the creation of the overlay in the southern part of the county lines up with the county’s economic development strategy.
“The primary consideration for these industries are workforce and proximity to a continued pipeline of skilled labor,” van Eckert said. “Volusia County is ideally suited for that.”
Ervin said the partnerships with private entities and local colleges and universities make the county even more competitive in the rapidly growing aerospace sector.
“With Embry-Riddle you have one of the top-notch universities in the nation here, that definitely gives us a leg up,” he said.
Ervin said the county also enjoys several logistical advantages beyond its proximity to KSC.
“We are close to the Port of Jacksonville and Orlando,” he said. “If you are looking at sea, air or road, we are there. And we are also on the FEC railroad line. We’ve got the infrastructure right there and ready to go.”
Creating the conditions and local infrastructure for economic development only happens when local governmental bodies like the Volusia County Council are on board with the effort.
For County Council member Deb Denys, the decision to move forward with the overlay zone was easy.
“When it comes to the aerospace industry, we’re living in extremely exciting times right now because the commercial sector of the space business continues to thrive beyond all expectations,” Denys said. “And all of those orbital launches require a whole range of ancillary businesses and support on the ground – things like solar power, batteries, computers and propulsion systems to engine parts, avionics, maintenance service, raw materials and high-tech guidance, telemetry and navigation systems.”
That puts Volusia County in a position to play a big role in the aviation and aerospace sectors, according to Denys.
“There’s a growing industry of businesses with high-paying jobs that serves the needs of the companies that are launching all of those rockets into space,” she said. “And Volusia County is well-positioned in every way to get a major share of that business. It may sound cliché, but when it comes to the aerospace industry and related jobs, I really believe the sky’s the limit for Volusia County.”
Denys’ enthusiasm could sound like hyperbole, if not for the realities of the commercial space boom already underway.
“It’s impossible to overstate the significance of what’s going on just across our southern border and our ongoing efforts in Volusia County to capitalize on the growth of the aerospace industry,” she said.
Denys said it’s not just about bringing new companies and new jobs to the county but helping existing businesses expand and thrive as well.
“It’s not just important to our efforts at luring new companies and job creators into our county. It’s also about growing and expanding aerospace supply chain opportunities for businesses that are already here,” she said. “After all, these efforts are just as much, if not more, about helping and supporting the business that already are right here in Volusia County by creating greater opportunities for them to land those big aerospace-related contracts. In all honesty, it really feels like we’re on the verge of something very big for our county.”
That is where things like creating the overlay zone come in and where local government can play a key role in economic development efforts.
“Our task is to create the business and regulatory climate and political will needed to seize the opportunity when it arises” Denys said. “That’s what this is all about – being ready to open the door when economic opportunity comes knocking.
Aaron London is a reporter and columnist who has covered business and economics for 27 years. He has worked for newspapers in Ohio and Florida and is also an adjunct professor of journalism at Daytona State College.